PARIS (AFP) — When the 2014 Tour de France started in Britain, with a British reigning champion riding for a British team, there was the feeling, in some quarters, that a piece of French heritage was being dragged across the channel.
To make things even worse, Dave Brailsford, the British manager of the defending champion’s team, Sky, had almost condescendingly said that his next challenge might be to try to win the Tour with a Frenchman.
The insinuation was that it had been easier to win the Tour with a rider from a country with almost no cycling culture than it would be to do so with a cyclist from the sport’s spiritual home.
For the previous two years, Britain had been the epicenter of the Tour de France as Team Sky won the 2012 and 2013 editions with Bradley Wiggins and then Chris Froome.
On top of that, the best sprinter over the last few years was another Briton, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
French viewers and commentators could only stand back in awe, too, at the reception the Tour got, first in Yorkshire where the first two stages took place, and then along the route from Cambridge to London.
German sprinter Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) described the crowds as “amazing” while two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) said he had been “speechless” at the reception.
Garmin-Sharp’s American manager Jonathan Vaughters said he’d only ever seen hordes that big on Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps.
Some were asking whether Britain was launching some sort of Trojan Horse takeover of the Grand Boucle.
But already, by the time the Tour left London to reconvene on the shores of its true home, the cracks in British domination were starting to show.
Cavendish crashed out of the race on the first stage, leaving only three Brits in the race.
It took only two more stages for Froome to crash out and leave Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) to dominate the race. Without Froome, Sky capitulated as Australian Richie Porte proved to be a poor substitute leader, finishing the race 23rd overall, more than an hour behind Nibali, and actually behind two of his domestiques.
By the end of the race, Welshman Geraint Thomas was the only Briton left, finishing 22nd overall, almost an hour in arrears.
In the meantime, the French were bristling.
Veteran Jean-Christophe Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) proved his 37 years were no barrier to success, gradually improving as the race progressed to climb all the way up to a second place finish.
Behind him, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) secured third place, ensuring France had two riders on the podium for the first time since Laurent Fignon bested legend Bernard Hinault in 1984 for his second Tour win.
French team AG2R La Mondiale won the team competition, helped in no small measure by Péraud but also 23-year-old Romain Bardet’s sixth-place finish and Blel Kadri’s stage 8 win from Tomblaine to Gérardmer La Mauselaine.
In Pinot, 24, and Bardet, the future looks bright for French cycling. They finished first and second in the young riders’ white jersey competition and both held their own with the best in both the mountains and time trial.
As well as those two, France has a whole host of talented, young up-and-coming riders.
Sprinters Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr), 22, and teammate Nacer Bouhanni, 24, were French national road race champions in 2014 and 2012 respectively, with the latter also winning the sprinter’s jersey at May’s Giro d’Italia.
Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol), 26, won the Tour’s 11th stage and wore the yellow jersey on Bastille Day. He’s a puncheur who many believe could become an overall challenger.
But the most brilliant of the lot is perhaps climber Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano), who won the Tour de l’Avenir — the Tour de France for young riders — in 2012 and claimed two stages in last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
In Paris, Brailsford’s tone was a bit humbled, though he seemed confident in Sky and Britain’s future.
“We won this race twice and that was fantastic,” he said. “When you win you have to win with dignity, and when you lose you have to lose with dignity. We had the pleasure of winning this great race twice, so chapeau to all the riders who rode well, especially to Nibali and also the French who have done well this year. This year wasn’t our year but we’ll try again next year.
“It’s good for everyone,” the Sky boss added. “It’s good for the French because it is, after all, the Tour de France. It’s good for all of French cycling and we’re happy for that.”
The future of the Tour appears to be bleu, blanc, and rouge — coincidentally the same colors found on the Union Jack.